September 18, 2013 by Ann Marie Thornburg
The anthropomorphized animal is a familiar figure in the many worlds of children’s literature. Dressed primly and gamboling about on hind legs, as in Beatrix Potter’s tales, or almost abstractly naked, like Leo Leonni’s mouse Frederick, animal characters are expected residents of these pages. Anthropomorphized animals can deliver gentle lessons and hard truths with an appeal human characters must work harder to achieve. Animals, by contrast, seem distant enough from humans to capture our attention. Their otherness renders them charismatic, while their concessions to our ways of communicating (by, for example, using human speech) render them appealing because we have remade them in our image. In short, they are animals we can understand on our own terms—humans attired in fur and feathers.
Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back, a slim volume illustrated in an appealingly geometric style, invites readers to follow a big, adorable bear as he makes his way through the forest, asking seemingly benign forest creatures if they’ve seen his missing red hat. He marches along bipedally, encountering a fox, a frog, a rabbit and others. Interestingly, the red hat is the only human object involved in the narrative. Its intrinsic appeal, inexplicable importance, and brightly colored solitude make it read like a decontextualized relic of human life. The bear’s diction is stripped down, and his syntax direct, almost clipped. For example, when he encounters a fox, this exchange unfolds:
Have you seen my hat?
No. I haven’t seen your hat.
Ok. Thank you Anyway.
A few pages later, he bumps into a snake and asks:
Have you seen my hat?
The snake replies:
I saw a hat once.
It was blue and round.
The search continues fruitlessly until the bear remembers a detail he missed several pages back. This epiphany leads to outrage, and outrage to violence. (I won’t “give away” the crucial detail on which the plot turns.) Although Klassen infuses his narrative with a bluntness which is not the result of the genre’s necessarily limited vocabulary, and a grimness that is not resolved, explained, or even explored at story’s end, what feels new here—the serious turn in the plot, the humor that diffuses the turn, and the cycle of behavior that commences—may not be so new at all. Ultimately a vague assumption about the ruthlessness of nature, as exemplified by certain characters, guides the plot to its very probable end. Some of the animals in I Want My Hat Back seem to behave in accordance with their species’ expected human personality traits (the brutish bear, the determined turtle), but they turn out to be a little more complex than mere tropes: the bear may be brutish, but he also can be helpful. In one scene he lifts a determined turtle, who has been struggling at his task all day, onto a rock. And the turtle is less determined than he might first appear, since he immediately accepts the help.
I do think Klassen’s book has something serious to show readers, and is strangely funny to boot. It’s just that, as is so often the case in literature ostensibly “about” animal characters, more is likely revealed to humans about how we perceive and interact with other humans than is truly revealed about animals.